Thinking in public, part 3 – risks and barriers

Got an interesting email from one of my readers, Jack Vinson. I'm reposting it with his permission.

I have to mention a concern that will arise as blogging gets higher on the corporate radar screen.

In today's blog you summarise that weblogs enable people to “think out loud” in a convenient way. This is something that corporate lawyers will wince to read. And prosecuting attorneys will drool. The problem is the way the US court systems have developed: A prosecuting attorney can dig through any and all relavent documents, looking for damning content. And this content is frequently devoid of context. “Look what that manager wrote in the marginalia!” Or “Look what 'evil' comments I found in the original version of this document” (from documents that have used the Track Revisions tool in MS Word). Never mind that the larger context has nothing sinister happening.

I could easily imagine that weblogs could be host to all sorts of “thinking out loud” discussions that would be ripe for the picking.

Of course, companies have to deal with these kinds of things all the time. They must get business done, while at the same time protecting themselves as much as possible. Most will encourage their people to “write smart” when committing anything to a potentially permanent record.

First off, it's clear we need to encourage Jack to join the ranks of bloggers. And I suspect that he's right about what some of the early reactions are likely to be from corporate counsel. How do we work through this objection?

For most companies the focus will remain on doing business and doing whatever best contributes to getting the job done. I remember a conversation a few years back with an attorney who had done some work with Cisco. Cisco managers basically said “we're using email to run our business, we're making commitments and binding agreements with it, and it's your job to figure out how to make that work, so deal with it.” While there may be some initial hemming and hawing, the concerns Jack raises won't be show stoppers.

I think there are two reasons to believe that internal weblogs will actually prove to be a better solution than email and newsgroups for this category of concerns. First, weblogs directly address the out of context problem created by email and newsgroup and exploited in discovery proceedings. Weblogs keep the context visible both in terms of the chronological and archive structures of the weblog format and in terms of the practice of linking across weblogs. Second, is the point that Jack raises at the end. The public nature of weblogs does encourage more attention to “writing smart” than email and newsgroup formats. It helps keep you focused on the notion that you are writing for the record. I sometimes wonder what would have happened at Enron if they had done more of their thinking “in public.” If an extensive weblog culture had been in place, could they have done wha they did? I don't know what the answer to that thought experiment might be. But if you had a choice between joining an organization with an active weblog environment or one that discouraged them, which would you choose?